Stride by Stride, Girls on the Run 5K Shapes Tomorrow's Leaders in Flagstaff

Flagstaff's young athletes discover strength, community, and confidence on the way to the finish line at Flagstaff's Buffalo Park on Nov. 4, 2023.

Click the link on the left to see all the images from the 2023 Girls on the Run - Flagstaff event. Download the images for free or order prints. Event photography is provided by Sean Openshaw Photography.

Story by Sean Openshaw


A massive bronze buffalo wearing a tutu and a party hat was a clear sign something spectacular was about to happen.

Rows of volunteers offered smiles and more tutus as people streamed through Flagstaff's Buffalo Park entrance, where 200 young girls and another 300 participants were preparing to embark on a run that was less about speed and more about the journey – the 2023 Girls on the Run 5K.

Kelly Teeselink, the event's council director for Northern Arizona, stood amid the sea of excited faces, understanding that the day was a pinnacle of personal growth for each runner.

"This event is the culmination of more than just a ten-week season," Teeselink said. "It's about the powerful life lessons these young girls carry forward. They're learning to harness their inner strength, to develop empathy and to be a resilient friend. While they're learning all these things, they're also learning how powerful their bodies are by training and setting a goal to complete a 5K at the end of the season. "

For the participants aged eight to ten, the 5K run is a metaphor for life's race – filled with challenges and triumphs. "Each stride they take is a building block in their journey of self-discovery," said Teeselink. "We aim to foster self-confidence, to teach them to stand up for themselves and others in a world that often overlooks the quiet strength of young girls."

"I hope that the girls who completed the Girls on the Run 5K can take with them the feeling of crossing that finish line, of being proud of their bodies for what they can do, not for what it looks like, which so many women are told," Teeselink said.

Native American Heritage MonthThe event's significance was amplified by its alignment with the return to in-person gatherings post-COVID and the celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

Native American Heritage Month

"We're not only running a race," Teeselink said, "we're honoring and celebrating our community's diverse heritage. Fourteen percent of our runners are Native American, and it's important that we celebrate this month with them to make sure they feel included."

This sense of inclusivity and recognition provided a backdrop for the day's activities, designed to energize and empower. From the moment the girls arrived, excitement was cultivated through team meet-ups, motivational speeches, music and empowering cultural acknowledgments.

As the Girls on the Run 5K event unfolded, the heartbeat of the Flagstaff community resonated through Buffalo Park, echoing the powerful messages shared by local leaders and cultural ambassadors.

Morgan Farley from Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) brought the essence of the event into perspective with a heartfelt message.

"Running is very important in our communities," Farley said to the assembled crowd, who were ready for the mass noon start. "We view running as a form of exercise and health and wellness, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. So, I just encourage everyone to try their hardest today. Think about someone who maybe is not able to run and run for them today."

Farley extended gratitude to all present and introduced the profound symbolism of the sacred mountain Prayer Stick and Corn Runner, which would be carried by selected runners not for competition but in prayer for the community's health and respect for Mother Earth.

"The Prayer Stick Runner prays for the needs and the wellness of runners and for people who are in need of good health," Farley said. "The Prayer Stick Runner is also asked to pray for our Mother Earth – the four-legged and the winged ones. Corn is very important. Corn is a form of sustenance for our bodies. So, a lot of people will say that corn is life for us and the corn is representing good health and wellness as well."

Amidst the young runners, Madyson Tutt, the Indigenous Ambassador at NAU, stood proudly in her Native American dress, her presence a beacon of support and pride for the community's youth.

"It's so wonderful to be here and see our young girls running," Tutt said. "I'm so proud of you. I'm here for you; to see you. My co-ambassador is actually a big runner. She ran throughout her entire childhood, so she's here supporting you in spirit as well."

Dr. Darold Joseph, Director of the Institute for Native-serving Educators at NAU, captured the event's essence by urging everyone to reflect on their connection to the environment.

"Our ancestors, the Hopi, have been here for a time and memorial, along with all of our Native American relatives throughout this nation," Joseph said. "The people that have lived there have not disappeared. We are still here. We still exist. We're still alive, and we live in relation to all of you," Joseph conveyed with reverence, encouraging communal respect for the natural surroundings and the ancestors who walked these lands.

"Generations of women carry the strength for your families. So, let's honor them. Let's treat them with respect. Let's think about the legacy they live and leave for us," Joseph said. "We honor all our women and the young girls. Please look up to the ladies in your lives to have the strength to lead us into the future. That's what we're here for, to honor them today."

The melodious prayer song from Sonny Lomadofkie, a drummer of Hopi and Gila River descent, further enriched the cultural tapestry of the event.

"I'm going to sing a song, a blessing and a prayer," Lomadofkie said, telling the crowd that it wasn't a performance and inviting them to participate by thinking of loved ones who couldn't attend the event. "As I sing, I think of you, and I think of those around us, and I think of the event," he said. "And that's my prayer, and it emanates from the drum."

Kelly Teeselink, the event steward, encapsulated the sentiments shared by the speakers, recognizing the blend of culture, support, and empowerment that defined the day. "Today we were able to honor traditions, celebrate our young runners and uplift the spirit of our community," her words are a testament to the transformative journey of the Girls on the Run 5K, stride by stride, story by story.

Bringing it home

"You can feel the energy all around you," Teeselink observed. "From getting their personalized bibs to participating in pre-run activities like 'happy hair' stations and glitter applications, it's a day designed to make each girl feel special, powerful and part of something larger than themselves."

Local community support was out in full force, with the nation's top-ranked Northern Arizona University women's cross-country team cheering on the runners. Firefighters set up obstacle courses, and even NAU's Louie the Lumberjack was there, adding to the festivities. This show of support underscored Teeselink's hope: "I hope they can see the people here support them. Whether that's their family members, coaches, the community members, the volunteers and everyone who came out here to support them along the way."

As the young athletes rounded the course, they were not only cheered on by the crowd but also by the breathtaking views of Buffalo Park – arguably one of the most picturesque running routes in the country. "The beauty of our setting is only matched by the spirit of our runners," Teeselink mused.

Having been involved with Girls on the Run for more than a decade, Teeselink has seen firsthand the transformative impact of the program. "The joy and pride that these girls experience today will become part of their narrative," she asserted. "I hope today showed the girls that they are supported, they are powerful, and they can do anything they set their minds to. That's what the Girls on the Run 5K represents. It doesn't matter if you cross the finish line first or last; you are supported, and you are powerful, and you can do amazing things."

Teeselink's closing thoughts were a heartfelt message to the young runners: "You've shown yourselves to be unstoppable. Carry this feeling with you – the feeling of achievement, of camaraderie, and of being part of something truly extraordinary."

Two girls in Tutus cheering on runners at 2024 Girls on the Run Flagstaff.
Runner looks like she is flying with her arms out.
Man wearing retro running outfit crossing the finish line.

Click the link on the left to see all the images from the 2023 Girls on the Run - Flagstaff event. Download the images for free or order prints. Event photography provided by Sean Openshaw photography.